August 3, 2011

Former Sacramento abuse victim jets into future of endless possibilities

Lilly Manning boarded her first airplane Tuesday and headed east for what she hopes will be a new life, free of torture and abuse and death threats.

Lilly Manning boarded her first airplane Tuesday and headed east for what she hopes will be a new life, free of torture and abuse and death threats.

Settled aboard Southwest Flight 120, the native of Sacramento left town on her own terms – now 19, no longer the frail teenager locked in a south Sacramento closet and routinely beaten with hammers and shoes and two-by-fours.

Lilly is moving on.

"I'm kind of nervous," she said before boarding. "But I can't wait!"

Lilly's childhood story of abuse and the criminal sentencing of her adoptive mom were featured last month in The Bee. Her departure Tuesday for New York state was helped in large part by Sacramento Bee readers, who donated more than $10,000 after reading about the violence that had consumed her childhood.

Adopted in the early 1990s by her great-aunt, along with four of her siblings, Lilly was routinely beaten and burned and locked for days in a 20-by-26-inch closet. She escaped from the closet in October 2007, unleashing the law on her adoptive mom, Lillian Manning-Horvath, and the woman's husband, Joseph Horvath.

Donations and offers of help began pouring in after The Bee published "The Girl with 100 Scars" on July 3. More support for Lilly rolled in after a story Sunday detailed the many agencies that came into contact with the family but did not move to protect the children.

By late Tuesday, a Bank of America fund established in Lilly's name had grown to $10,265, money that Lilly acknowledges has underwritten some typical teenage desires: a laptop, an iPhone, another tattoo and four new suitcases to hold her worldly possessions. (Two bags were assigned solely to her coveted shoe collection.)

"Hey, I saw her in the paper!" exclaimed one traveler in the Southwest ticketing line, who wished Lilly well and introduced himself later as Steve Leslie, 50, a businessman from Citrus Heights.

"I think it's great she got out of there," said Leslie, referring to Lilly's daring escape from an abusive home.

Accompanied to the airport by her childhood friend and roommate, Netya Burton, 19, Lilly seemed unfazed by the attention.

"The whole city of Sacramento admires you and loves you!" wrote one Sacramento woman, enclosing a $50 check for her bank fund. "You rock!"

"I am so impressed at your resilience and courage, and so upset that no one believed your story when you first tried to get help," wrote an Auburn woman, also enclosing $50.

One donor sent $5,000.

Many readers expressed hope that her years of abuse would not define her.

"Hang in there!" wrote one West Sacramento family. "Life is now what you make of it."

Besides cash donations, Bee readers had other ideas for Lilly, among them: opera tickets, a salon makeover, dance lessons and free spiritual counseling.

A Los Angeles-based researcher for the Biography Channel contacted her this week about appearing on the TV series "I Survived," which features individuals who have overcome life-threatening circumstances.

"It's pretty awesome. It is," Lilly said of the community outpouring of support. "I honestly didn't think that people cared."

In New York, Lilly plans to meet her 22-year-old sister Natasha, who is being moved by the Army from Germany to Fort Drum, about 30 miles from the Canada border.

"I am excited about it," Natasha Manning wrote in an email to The Bee. "It's been 3 1/2 years since I've been away, and we've missed out so much in each other's lives. I think it will be fun."

Lilly plans to live with Natasha and help care for her sister's 2-year-old daughter while also signing up for some online college courses.

Tuesday's farewell was not without glitches. Lilly had never been on an airplane – and had not seen the ocean or taken a family vacation. She was bewildered by airport procedures. A temporary replacement for her lost ATM card was rejected at the ticket counter, sending her scampering for cash to cover her excess and overweight baggage fees.

She passed her driving test just in time last week to get a photo ID.

Thienvu Ho, the deputy district attorney who stuck with the case for 3 1/2 years – despite being moved to a different unit – said he wishes "nothing but the best" for the girl who inspired him with her courage and resolve.

"She's amazing to have gone through everything she did and be what she is today," said Ho. "It speaks volumes to the strength of the human spirit – especially hers."

On the ground floor of Terminal A at Sacramento International Airport, Lilly hugged Netya, the friend she has known since fourth grade. Then she gathered up her shoulder bag and aqua laptop case and rode the escalator up to security.

She did not look back.

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